Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and other progressives are introducing new legislation seeking to “transform the nation’s public safety response” by funding and researching “non-carceral” alternatives to police. 

The People’s Response Act, co-led by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), would create a new public safety agency in the Department of Health and Human Services to fund research and grants into “health-centered” investments in public safety. 

This would include launching a federal first responders unit to support states and local governments with emergency health crises, as well as some $2.5 billion for those governments and community organizations to hire first responders who are mental health and substance abuse counselors. 

“For too long, our flawed approach to public safety has centered criminalization, surveillance and incarceration, rather than care, justice and healing,” Pressley said in a news release. 

Bush said that the vision for the legislation is to “transform public safety into a system of care rather than criminalization, healing rather than incarceration, and prevention rather than policing.”

Last year, in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people, activists renewed calls to defund police departments and reinvest in communities, namely in alternative responses to 911 calls, including with mental health expert responders.

In several high-profile cases, people have been killed by police after a 911 call seeking support for a mental health crisis or substance abuse issue. 

In 2019, Fort Worth police shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, in her own home after responding to a neighbor’s request for a welfare check. 

In January, a police officer in Killeen, Texas, fatally shot Patrick Warren, who was Black and unarmed, on the lawn of his home, after his family called for mental health support

And earlier this year, after a neighbor called 911 reporting a man who appeared drunk in a park in Alameda, California, police arrived and handcuffed Mario Gonzalez, then kneeled on his back for minutes, killing the 26-year-old Latino father. 

Since the wave of protests last summer against racist police violence, some cities have responded by redirecting funds budgeted for law enforcement to alternative public safety efforts.

Last week in Oakland, California, for instance, the city council voted to use some $18 million (out of an over $300 million annual police budget) to fund alternatives to policing, including having unarmed fire department staff respond to nonviolent 911 calls.